Enhancing Situational Understanding through the
Employment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

by MAJ Brad C. Dostal, Military Analyst, CALL

A SALUTE Report from the IBCT
Table of Contents
Appendix A:  Army Battle Command Systems Descriptions

Introduction -- The Impact of UAVs

As the doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) relevant to the IBCT and its digital systems proliferates throughout the U.S. Army, the terms "situational awareness" and "situational understanding" have become commonplace. Both are considered key factors in the planning and execution of combat operations in digitally-equipped units. Situational awareness is defined as "The ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation including friendly and threat situations as well as terrain."1 Situational understanding (SU) is "The product of applying analysis and judgment to the unit's situational awareness to determine the relationships of the factors present and form logical conclusions concerning threats to the force or mission accomplishment, opportunities for mission accomplishment, and gaps in information."2 SU allows leaders to avoid surprise, make rapid decisions, and choose when and where to conduct engagements, and achieve decisive outcomes. Within the IBCT, the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (TUAV) is one of the key tools to gather the information to build situational awareness and understanding for all leaders.

The primary source of combat information to develop the critical element of SU in the IBCT is the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA) squadron. The RSTA squadron's design consists of a headquarters troop, three reconnaissance troops, and a surveillance and target acquisition troop. The latter consists of a UAV platoon, ground sensor platoon, and NBC reconnaissance platoon. As stated in the IBCT Organizational and Operational Concept (O&O), "The RSTA elements must provide situational understanding of the operational environment in all of its dimensions -- political, cultural, economic, demographic, as well as military factors."3 The RSTA squadron meets this demanding role using the organic capabilities of its reconnaissance troops and sensor platforms of the surveillance troop. By developing situational awareness and corresponding situational understanding for the brigade, the RSTA squadron provides greater freedom of maneuver and action.

This article focuses on a critical component of the RSTA squadron's surveillance troop, the UAV platoon. The importance of understanding the capabilities of this element is key, since the TUAV is the ground maneuver commander's primary day and night, RSTA system. The TUAV provides the commander with a number of capabilities including:

  • Enhanced situational awareness.
  • Target acquisition.
  • Battle damage assessment (BDA).
  • Enhanced battle management capabilities (friendly situation and battlefield visualization).

The combination of these benefits contributes to the commander's dominant situational awareness allowing him to maneuver to points of positional advantage with speed and precision to conduct decisive operations. As a C2enabler for tactical decisionmaking, the UAV platoon is the commander's "dominant eye," allowing him to shape the battlefield to ensure mission success. This article shares some of the basic operational capabilities of theUAV platoon while discussing TTPs for improved utilization and employment of TUAV assets throughout all units within the IBCT.

UAV Assets and Common Operations within the IBCT

The UAV assets of the IBCT are located within the surveillance troop. The troop is commanded by an intelligence officer, and has a wide array of reconnaissance assets to enhance its intelligence- gathering capability. Among these capabilities are imagery intelligence (IMINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT), and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) assets. Organic assets include the TUAV, Remotely Monitored Battlefield Sensor System (REMBASS), Ground Surveillance Radar (GSR), the PROPHET system,4 and the Chemical, Biological, and Radiological-Integrated Detection System (CBRIDS).5 This article focuses on the UAV platoon of the surveillance troop depicted in Figure 1.

Depiction of UAV platoon of the surveillance troop

Figure 1

The UAV platoon's mission is to launch, fly, recover, and maintain the RSTA squadron's aerial reconnaissance platforms. The platoon forms two elements when in its operational configuration: a C2element and a launch and recovery element. The platoon leader is a captain, signaling the level of importance given to these operations within the brigade. Additionally, the officer is a military intelligence aviator, who has the flight and intelligence background to effectively lead an airborne intelligence unit. The platoon sergeant, mission control (MC) sergeant, and three squad leaders provide additional leadership. The remaining platoon personnel consist of 96U (UAV operators) and the technicians trained to maintain the aircraft and flight control systems. Since the manning of the platoon is austere, and the elements often operate from two to three different locations, the demands on the personnel are high during continuous operations. To offset these demands, all senior personnel are capable of carrying out the duties of mission control.

The IBCT currently uses the Hunter UAV as a surrogate system until the new Shadow 200 TUAV is fielded.6 Although the IBCT O&O provides four TUAVs organic to the platoon, it currently operates three Hunter UAVs.7 The three Hunter aerial vehicles are transported on a newly acquired two-trailer system to reduce the airlift requirements for the unit. Since the system is designed with two prime-movers, each pulling a trailer, the Hunter UAVs are moved in a disassembled state, broken down between the two trailers.

Photo of UAV preparing for takeoff

Photo of Shadow 200 TUAV mounted on a hydraulic rail launcher for field operations

Control of the Hunter UAVs while in flight comes from one of two Ground Control Stations (GCSs)8 or the Launch and Recovery Station (LRS). The LRS has the same capability as the GCSs because of equipment modernization and standardization. During most operations, the LRS launches the UAV. Once the aircraft is airborne at approximately 3,500 feet and moving toward the objective area, the LRS passes control of the UAV to a forward GCS to carry out the mission. Within the IBCT, as a general rule, two stations remain at the launch site, allowing one station to displace to an alternate location if needed during mission execution. This enables one station to recover the UAV while the other is on the move. The forward control station is normally collocated with the supported unit, most likely with the RSTA Command Post (CP), or with the battalion CP of the brigade's main effort.

Although GCSs control the UAVs, the IBCT can use another method of sharing the critical video feed provided by the airborne platform camera on each UAV. Remote Video Terminals (RVTs) may be collocated with those CPs within the brigade that do not have a GCS. Each RVT comes with a communications package allowing it to receive real-time video feed from selected airborne TUAVs and display the picture to observers on a small video screen. Since the UAV platoon has four RVTs, one is usually located with each of the infantry battalions, with the remaining terminal located with the artillery battalion.

Doctrinal Deployment of TUAVs in the IBCT

Although the UAV platoon is an organic element of the RSTA squadron, it is clearly a "brigade" asset because of its critical role within the unit. At times, TUAVs undoubtedly carry out missions to collect intelligence directly for the brigade's military intelligence company or conduct missions in direct support of infantry battalion maneuver operations. During these operations, control of the TUAVs may be beyond the direct span of control of the RSTA Squadron Commander. Although these aerial reconnaissance assets are supported and maintained within the RSTA squadron, they must support the brigade commander's priority intelligence requirements (PIRs).

As the IBCT's chief intelligence officer, the brigade S2, through the military intelligence company's Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) integration section, will likely be the primary tasking authority for the UAV platoon. This issue is frequently discussed between senior leaders in the IBCT, and can be addressed in the future as the IBCT employs TUAVs during collective training events. Throughout the remainder of this article, employment of TUAVs is addressed in the context of battalion and below collective training, which places the TUAVs under the control of their assigned headquarters of the RSTA squadron, with the focus on related training TTPs.

For the RSTA squadron to provide situational understanding to the IBCT, it must employ its ISR assets as a part of a synchronized collection plan. TUAVs are clearly one of the key ISR assets for commanders to consider when planning intelligence collection operations, and consideration of their doctrinal roles within the IBCT allow for maximum benefit during employment. The key point in most doctrine available (currently in draft form) on the utilization of TUAVs in RSTA operations is that they must be employed only when thoroughly integrated with other ISR platforms in the squadron. Commanders must avoid the temptation to use the TUAVs as a lone ISR asset. The drawbacks of doing so were visible during the Joint Contingency Force Advanced Warfighter Experiment (JCF AWE) at the Joint Readiness Training Center. Aerial platforms operating independently to assess battle damage of individual enemy vehicles or to provide data for fire missions were often unsuccessful, and dedicated significant flight time to events having no impact on brigade-level operations.9

The utilization of TUAVs is most successful when it centers on missions of adding depth, extending capabilities, or broadening the areas of coverage of other ISR assets in the RSTA squadron. TUAVs also provide flexibility to the commander's operational plan as well as redundancy of coverage, with the added benefit of significant standoff. Aerial reconnaissance provides the commander a low-risk means of conducting reconnaissance in a relatively short period of time. With the area of operations for the RSTA squadron likely to exceed its doctrinal capabilities to conduct security operations such as screening, TUAVs are useful to cover gaps not possible for the commander to maintain with reconnaissance troops or other ISR assets available. Figure 2 provides a set of guidelines for IBCT commanders and staff to consider when utilizing TUAV assets for aerial reconnaissance missions. Most importantly, commanders must remember that TUAVs are best used to complement the missions of the ground forces through integration with other ISR assets.

Conditions for Conducting Aerial Reconnaissance with TUAVs
  • Time is limited or information is required quickly.
  • Detailed reconnaissance is not required.
  • Extended duration surveillance is not required.
  • Objective is at extended range.
  • Verification of a target is needed.
  • Threat conditions are known and risk to ground assets is high.
  • Terrain restricts approach by ground units.
  • Terrain and weather conditions are favorable.

Figure 2

UAV Employment -- Lessons Learned

During a recent FTX at Yakima Training Center, WA, the RSTA squadron simultaneously employed all ISR assets during an intense three-day maneuver exercise. The squadron used its UAVs to gather intelligence in conjunction with other surveillance assets, and tasked them to assist in conducting fire missions with the IBCT's artillery battalion, which was also deployed to Yakima.

RSTA commanders and staff were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the UAV, since they conducted operations in the more difficult heavily vegetated terrain of Fort Lewis during a previous training event. Leaders clearly understood that dense vegetation, cloud cover, and precipitation degrade UAV capabilities. Throughout the exercise, the UAVs were employed in a manner to overcome these shortfalls as best as possible, including reliance on infrared capabilities. Although this was the first time either battalion deployed since the transformation process began, the units learned many lessons on the employment of UAV assets within the IBCT.

Psychological Effects on Enemy Forces -- During the maneuver exercise, an element of OPFOR conducted harassing operations including infiltration, ambushes, and a raid against the RSTA squadron. The OPFOR effort was well-planned; however, plans of OPFOR actions were not shared with the commanders and staff of the RSTA squadron to promote a realistic and dynamic environment for the training event. During the after-action review, OPFOR leadership stated that the most difficult challenge presented to them was to operate undetected while the UAVs were airborne. Although the OPFOR personnel often were able to avoid detection even in relatively open terrain by moving in small elements and by staying close to the limited vegetation available for concealment, the UAV was very menacing. When the UAVs were airborne anywhere in the area of operations, the OPFOR was hesitant to move for fear of detection. The ability of the UAV to keep enemy forces off balance is a significant secondary benefit. Although the objective of the UAV may be to observe a specific area on the ground, the course it flies while doing so can be planned to impact threat forces in an area not being observed.

Photo of UAV feed of OPFOR mounted elements during RSTA squadron maneuvers

UAV feed of OPFOR mounted elements during the RSTA squadron maneuvers.

Equipment Effects on Operational Readiness -- During this deployment, the UAV platoon deployed with the new trailer system for the first time. In the old method, a 5-ton truck transported each UAV. The new system requires less support. There is one less prime mover, one less driver, and reduced maintenance support. A lesson learned during the deployment was that it takes approximately twice as long to prepare a UAV for operations after arriving at the airfield with the new system. With the old system, once the aircraft was lifted off of the truck with a crane, it was ready to fly following its pre-flight checks. Since the Hunter UAVs are disassembled to a greater extent with the new trailer system, the UAV platoon needs four hours instead of two to prepare the UAVs for aerial reconnaissance missions. Commanders should factor this additional assembly time into their planning when displacing the UAV platoon.

Photo of a Hunter UAV secured for movement on a new trailer system

A Hunter UAV secured for movement on the new trailer system.

UAV Handoff in Three-Dimensional Operational Areas -- During the FTX, the UAV platoon executed "handoff" on numerous occasions.10 Early in the maneuver portion of the exercise, the UAV platoon moved one GCS forward with the RSTA CP to serve as the forward deployed GCS for future operations. The unit experienced some difficulty in executing the successful uplink of communications between the Hunter UAV and the forward deployed GCS because of the position of the target area in relation to the receiving GCS. During "linear" operations, the forward GCS is normally located enroute to the target area. During the "non-linear" operations practiced during the FTX (and the type that the IBCT is designed to conduct), the objective is not positioned forward of both the LRS and forward GCS responsible for controlling the UAV over the objective area (see Figure 3).

Diagram of Conventional and Non-Linear UAV Handoff

Figure 3

Operating in a non-linear manner greatly increases the complexity of UAV handover operations. The angle of the antenna system on the Hunter UAV must be within 30 to 45 degrees of the ground data terminal communications system located with each GCS. The dashed lines in Figure 3 depict the communications linkage, and the corresponding difficulty experienced in non-linear operations. During linear operations, when the launch station attempts to execute handover with the forward station, the antenna angle to the forward station stays within the 45 degree range, facilitating quick communications linkage. During non-linear operations, when the launch station attempts to execute handover with the forward station, the antenna angle to the forward station greatly exceeds 45 degrees, and the UAV is not quickly able to gain communications with the forward station. While attempting to make contact with the forward station, the UAV continues to fly as programmed in the flight database, but significantly greater amounts of time are required for the forward station to achieve uplink as the Hunter UAV redirects its antenna to the new station attempting to gain control. In addition to the increased time necessary for handover, risk increases during this period as well. If one station becomes non-operational due to the threat actions, it is more difficult for the other station to regain control.

The non-linear effects of the Hunter UAV also impact other elements of the IBCT. Units with RVTs accessing the UAV video feed frequently lose real-time UAV data feed as well, since the antenna angle also affects RVT terminals. This is an important aspect for commanders and staff to consider when evaluating planning factors related to "maneuvering the network," a key principle to successful operations within the IBCT. Commanders must consider the effects of UAV communications capabilities on units requiring RVT feed. These elements must be located within reasonable range of the controlling GCS if they are to receive real-time data feed. If this is not possible, commanders must consider other options including the use of other available methods of communication other than receiving the feed directly from the UAV.11

Integrating the UAV into TOC operations -- The location of the UAV feed within the TOC is an issue of importance to ensure maximum utilization of system capabilities. In all digital TOCs, the UAV digital picture is displayed on a screen of the Command Information Center (CIC) in the briefing area for commanders and staff to view. UAV video feed can also be down-linked to RVTs, which can be placed in various locations depending on mission requirements. When collocated with an All-Source Analysis System (ASAS) Remote Workstation (RWS), the RVT allows the military intelligence analyst at the RWS terminal to capture an image identified by the UAV operator on his screen, conduct a screen print, and carry out further detailed analysis of the image. When located next to the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), the RVT supports the fire support officer and his crew using UAV data to execute calls for fire. Locating the UAV terminal next to the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) and Air Missile Defense Work Station (AMDWS) can also benefit operations, as these assets often work collectively against identified targets.

Another critical aspect of UAV operations is the ability of the officers and senior NCOs of the battle staff to successfully focus UAVs to accomplish assigned missions. This means close integration of the UAV operator with the operations staff and intelligence analysts to find and verify commander's critical information requirements and conduct the corresponding analysis. Communications between the TOC battle captain and the UAV mission commander must also be open and frequently practiced. This is critical during fire missions and other times when immediate feedback from the UAV is necessary, and the UAV mission commander may have to relay flight instructions to the UAV operator located outside the TOC in the control shelter. By working closely together, both parties can ensure maximum effective utilization of the UAVs to accomplish the brigade mission successfully.

Photo of an intelligence analyst and a UAV operator evaluating video feed on an RVT

An intelligence analyst and a UAV operator evaluate video feed on a RVT.

UAV Operational Manning Concerns -- The UAV platoon is manned with 96Us (UAV operators) to operate the UAV, but does not contain any organic capability to analyze the imagery. The personnel assigned to conduct analysis of collected imagery are located in the brigade ISR section of the military intelligence company. During many operations, this manning structure is sufficient, since the RSTA TOC will be collocated with the brigade main CP.Photo of soldiers conducting imagery analysisDuring these consolidated operations, the GCS elements of the UAV platoon can work closely with the ISR integration team to ensure all video feed is being properly evaluated and shared with commanders and staff at all levels.

One limitation of this manning structure clearly seen during the RSTA FTX is that many other elements besides the brigade main CP have a requirement for organic imagery analysis. When operating in the squadron TAC configuration during the FTX, the squadron commander depends heavily on the surveillance troop commander and assistant S2 to conduct large amounts of imagery analysis of UAV video feed. Although these personnel are capable of conducting analysis of the feed received through the RVT in the TAC, it is less than ideal. The difficulty in interpreting UAV imagery was visible during squadron maneuvers. Although the RSTA squadron is manned to operate the UAVs, it lacks the needed manning to conduct high quality analysis of UAV feed, especially if not collocated with the brigade CP.

Photo of soldier conducting imagery analysisWith the addition of 96Ds (imagery analysts) to the surveillance troop headquarters, the RSTA squadron could better optimize the UAV feed it receives. Integration of UAV operations within the TOC would improve with dedicated analysts as well. The development of a close working relationship not only with the intelligence section, but also with the Fire Direction Officer and battle captain would enhance operations in the squadron. During critical incidents, such as the sighting of large elements of suspected enemy in the area of operations, the squadron commander could expect direct feedback from a trained source. Non-trained personnel tasked to conduct imagery analysis do not have the same expertise and training as 96Ds in imagery analysis. When relied upon to conduct UAV imagery analysis, 96Ds maintain a higher likelihood of reporting data accurately, greatly benefiting overall situational awareness in the brigade.

Photo of image taken during an FTX of a probable four-man OPFOR observation post

An image taken during the FTX of a "probable" four-man OPFOR observation post (OP).
Accurate identification of this element by a 96D imagery analyst might have altered
the commander's plan, having a more favorable outcome for friendly forces.


When properly employed, the UAV platoon greatly enhances the IBCT's ability to successfully meet the unique intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance challenges inherent to its multi-dimensional environment. As a key C2enabler for tactical decisionmaking in the IBCT, UAVs clearly are the commander's "dominant eye," allowing him to shape the battlefield to ensure mission success. Commanders and staff of all units in the IBCT must understand that the employment of UAVs in operations must be thoroughly integrated with all brigade ISR platforms. Through the sound employment of these critical assets, IBCT commanders will more adeptly shape the battlefield to facilitate successful combat operations.

UAV lessons learned in the early operations of the IBCT provide current and future IBCT leaders the opportunity to understand the capabilities of UAV assets, and develop the best methods for their employment. Planning for aerial reconnaissance with UAVs is most successful when it centers on missions of adding depth, extending capabilities, or broadening the areas of coverage of other ISR assets in the RSTA squadron. The ability of the UAV to keep enemy forces off balance is one to consider as a secondary benefit of mission planning at all levels. The difficulties of operating in a non-linear manner and the effects on handover operations and RVT feed must be factored into mission planning as well. As elements of the IBCT deploy throughout the battlefield to conduct operations, the lack of trained imagery analysts will remain an issue as commanders operating from TACs on the battlefield make decisions based on the limited organic analysis capability. The ability of the unit to rely on reachback capability to analyze UAV feed, and push the information to commanders in the field, is critical to maintaining the dominant eye of the IBCT, and a sound grasp of situational understanding.



1. Draft FM 17-96, RSTA Squadron, p. 1-13.
2. Ibid.
3. IBCT O&O Concept, Version 4.0, 30 June 2000, p. 37.
4. The PROPHET system is a "next generation" Tactical SIGINT System. Either mounted on a Heavy HMMWV, M1097, or dismounted as a man-portable capability, PROPHET's primary mission is to provide 24-hour force protection (FP) to the maneuver brigade. PROPHET's electronic support (ES) and ground surveillance capability provides early warning of potential threats to supported forces in the brigade area.
5. Currently under development, the CBRIDS conducts NBC reconnaissance, survey surveillance, sampling, and warning missions with point, stand-off, and remotely piloted detectors to reduce operational and tactical surprise from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - Army Chemical Review, January 2000.
6. The Shadow 200 TUAV is currently scheduled for full production in late 2002. The aircraft is about one third the size and weight of the Hunter UAV and does not require an airfield since it can be launched from a hydraulic rail system and recovered with an arrester hook field recovery system.
7. Characteristics of the Hunter UAV include a 16,000-foot MSL service ceiling, 10-hour sustained flight time, GPS/IFF-equipped, twin 65-hp engines, and maximum gross take-off weight of 1,600 lbs.
8. The GCS collects, processes, analyzes, and distributes digitized battlefield information by interfacing with currently fielded systems. Characteristics of the GCS include primary and backup stations capable of flying two UAVs simultaneously, C2to 125km and an additional 75km with relay, and GPS movement tracking.
9. JCF AWE Initial Impressions Report, Center for Army Lessons Learned, March 2001, p. 47, 51 and 64.
10. Handoff is the procedure conducted when the GCS near the take-off airfield passes control to the forward located station, which controls the UAV during mission execution. Handoff can be conducted in the "silent" mode with no communications made between stations, or in the "open" with both stations using voice communications to ensure successful completion of the procedure.
11. One method of increasing the capabilities of the remote video terminals is to locate them with the PROPHET system. The RVT can rely on the highly capable communications system of the PROPHET system to increase its ability to provide quality real-time UAV feed to commanders. This could be especially useful for the RSTA TAC, as it could plan to collocate with a PROPHET system during periods when UAV feed to the commander in the TAC is critical to operational success.

A SALUTE Report from the IBCT
Table of Contents
Appendix A:  Army Battle Command Systems Descriptions

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